WEST OF MEMPHIS
About the Production
Sometimes the trigger to action is inaction. In 2005, when Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh first
became aware of the inadequacies and outright injustices of the legal proceedings that brought
Damien Echols to death row in 1994, what shocked them was that the case had languished since
his conviction. The combination of human error and politicized decision-making that built the
case against Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. for the murders of three
young boys in rural Arkansas is frighteningly prevalent. But one distinguishing point of the
notorious "West Memphis 3" case was the volume of conflicting evidence that was publicly
available, yet had made no impact on the fate of the three young men incarcerated for a terrible,
still unsolved crime. "The more court documents we read," Walsh recalls, "the more dreadful it
all became, and the natural hope was that the three were about to get out soon. But, in fact,
nothing was happening. That 'nothing" was the catalyst that moved us to contact Lorri Davis."
Jackson and Walsh began an intense correspondence with Davis, who brought them up to date on
the case -- and made sure that Echols himself was an integral part of the process from the
beginning. At the end of 2005, Jackson and Walsh met Davis along with attorney Dennis
Riordan in New York City. Each additional layer of information on the trial that resulted in life
sentences for Baldwin and Miskelley, and a death sentence for Echols, further persuaded Jackson
and Walsh that justice had not been served. Since the deeply troubling findings that were already
readily available had not influenced the position of the State of Arkansas on the guilt of the three
young men, Jackson and Walsh decided to launch an investigation of their own. It was clear to
them that hard science had been sorely neglected in the case. And this omission became their
starting point. By pursuing DNA evidence and an objective reexamination of the forensic
evidence that had been gathered in the original trials, they hoped to clarify what had actually
happened to the three, eight-year-old boys whose bodies had been discovered in a grisly
condition at the bottom of a creek.
For Davis, the decision by Jackson and Walsh to fund a fresh investigation that would begin at
the start of 2006 offered a glimmer of hope. For the first time since she herself became involved
with Echols' legal case in 1998, there was a real strategy in place to begin constructing the
foundation for a challenge to the convictions. Moreover, with almost all of Echols' avenues of
appeal exhausted, the DNA appeal had become one of his last bids to escape execution. Every
day, there was work to be done and there were fresh developments to be parsed. It was an
immensely complex process, as Jackson and Walsh were to discover, since it was always,
necessarily, an investigation, not of one, but of three cases: that of Baldwin and Miskelley, as
well as of Echols.
For Echols himself, the idea of embracing the new private investigation as grounds for hope was
more fraught. Worn out from having to live the case every single day for years, he had learned
not to think about the evolving status of the case. "I'd had my hopes picked up and let down so
many times," Echols recalls. "If you let that keep happening, it kills something in you." But he
was grateful for the copious supply of books and magazines that Walsh and Jackson sent him --
precisely because they distracted him from his own plight. Reading gave him a window onto the
Throughout 2006 and well into 2007, all efforts were concentrated on carrying out the
methodical, exacting forensic science analyses that had been dispensed with in the mash up of
sensationalism and political expediency that defined the initial trial. Private investigators hired
by Walsh and Jackson gathered multiple DNA samples from key sites and individuals, then
presented these findings to SERI, one of the most highly regarded independent DNA experts in
the field. They submitted the physical evidence -- most notably the numerous disturbing
photographs of the boys' mutilated bodies -- to Dr. Werner Spitz, Dr. Michael Baden, Dr. Janice
Ophoven, Dr. Terry Haddix, Dr. Richard Souviron, Dr. Vincent Di Maio, Dr. Robert Wood, top
pathologists and odontologists, to determine whether their interpretations matched those of Frank
Peretti, the local medical examiner who'd testified in court on behalf of the prosecution about
In May of 2007, revelations began to roll in that completely transformed the profile of the case.
Expert pathologists all arrived independently at identical, unequivocal conclusions: the wounds
and mutilations that disfigured the bodies of the boys to such viscerally horrifying effect --
injuries that had been instrumental in convincing the jury to give Echols a death sentence -- were
not caused by a knife. Nor had they occurred in the midst of a satanic ritual preceding the
murders. The gory injuries were caused by animal predation -- post-mortem bites to the bodies as
they lay underwater. Peretti's qualifications -- he was an assistant medical examiner who was not
even board certified at the time of the trial -- now seemed woefully insufficient. He was literally
out of his depth.
But it wasn't only the radical reappraisal of the victim's injuries that occurred that year. In early
2007 the DNA findings began to arrive. None of the DNA of either Echols, Baldwin or
Miskelley was found on any of the physical evidence connected to the murders. Just as
dramatically, DNA found on a hair underneath a ligature that had been used to bind one of the
boys matched that of Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered children. Inexplicably
given his own legal history, Hobbs had never been interviewed by the police, nor had his home
The watershed year of 2007 convinced Walsh, Jackson and Davis that a new trial would be
granted to the West Memphis 3. In September of 2008, the new evidence, which went beyond
the pathologists' reports and the DNA findings to include juror misconduct and other
irregularities, was presented to Judge David Burnett, who'd presided over the original trial.
Burnett dismissed the new evidence out of hand, saying that it was not compelling enough to
warrant a new trial.
Echols moved one step closer to execution. This blanket dismissal of a substantial dossier of
evidence casting grave doubts over the first trial was one of the low points for Echols throughout
the entire ordeal. Walsh, Jackson and Davis, meanwhile, were appalled at the notion that the
wealth of new information appeared utterly irrelevant in the eyes of the court. This was the
moment when the idea of creating a film on the case was conceived.
"We felt there had to be a way to make the greater public aware of what was happening in this
case," Walsh recounts. "There were no other documentaries in production. There wasn't much
public interest. It was a dead time. We were determined to get the information out, and we came
up with the idea of presenting the evidence in a film, to let the public would know what was
being done in their name. Getting the true story into the public arena seemed our best hope for
pressuring the authorities to reassessing the case. We mooted the idea with Damien and Lorri."
Echols and Davis were immediately, wholeheartedly on board. By this point, Echols was eager
to speak with anyone he could. He felt he had nothing to hide, and the court would listen to
nothing his supporters uncovered that further bolstered his claim to be innocent. Walsh and
Jackson reached out to filmmaker Amy Berg, whose film DELIVER US FROM EVIL convinced
them that Berg had the courage and tenacity to go into Arkansas and tackle the story. They had
seen defense attorneys and others get tattered in the process of trying to salvage the facts in this
case. They knew that the director for this project would need to be someone who was not only
capable of making a great film, but also someone who could grasp the intricacies of how the film
would play a key role in the defense.
Berg was unfamiliar with the story of the West Memphis 3 when the project was first proposed
to her, but over the course of a couple of months of back and forth with Walsh and Jackson, she
began to immerse herself in all the evidence and coverage the case had received. She hesitated at
first about taking on the film because she recognized what a massive project it would end up
being. But then she met Davis and found herself enormously moved by her account of events in
the story. She then spoke with Echols on the phone and found him to be an extraordinary
presence. One of the first things he told her was that he wouldn't give up a single day he'd spent
on death row since that experience had, in fact, made him who he was. Berg travelled to
Arkansas to visit Echols in prison. They spoke for three and a half hours about everything from
life and literature to spirituality. Echols told her that he would meditate for up to seven hours a
day to retain his sanity in that torturous prison environment. The idea of the discipline it required
to sustain that kind of focus in a 90 square foot room with no natural light astonished her.
It had been ten years since Echols had been the subject of documentarian attention. There'd been
no communication with other filmmakers during that decade.
"My approach is different from that of a lot of other documentary filmmakers," Berg notes. "I
feel I can create a much stronger film when I have a greater understanding and trust with my
subjects. I have to be emotionally moved myself in order to create work that will move others. I
was committed from the start to presenting all the many aspects of this complex story -- including
the perspectives of all the relevant authorities, even when I believed their interpretation of events
was refuted by the evidence. It was clear to me that this story had become a tragedy for everyone
But working on the film also became a lifeline of hope for Davis and Echols. "As producers on
the film," Echols says, "WEST OF MEMPHIS became the very first time we were given the chance to
tell our own story. In the case of every other production -- whether it was for television or a
movie -- the story was ultimately fulfilling someone else's agenda and was shaped the way they
wanted to shape it. But Amy, Fran and Peter gave us the chance to let this film become the truth
we lived. That makes its' vision unique."
From the start of the project, the fact that the film was enmeshed with the defense also created
singular constraints. There was information that had to be protected since once it was released it
could be subpoenaed by the state. New rounds of interviews with witnesses began to produce an
astonishing series of recantations of testimony. Yet there were confidentiality agreements that
had to be observed and which forestalled the possibility for a premature disclosure of the full
story. "The case always came first," Walsh remarks. "We had a responsibility to the defense, we
were privy to sensitive and confidential information and we had to respect that, but getting the
truth about the case into a public forum was always our long term goal."
At last, however, the momentum toward a reversal of the 1994 verdict began to build. In August
of 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted Dennis Riordan's petition for a new evidentiary
hearing. The oral arguments were heard in September of 2010. Prior to that, at the end of August,
Eddie Vedder held a press conference and benefit concert in Arkansas on behalf of the West
Memphis 3, and national and international media returned to the state in full force to cover the
story. On November 4th, 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously overturned all points
in Judge David Burnett's DNA ruling.
"For the first time," Echols says, "I began to feel hope again. It wasn't just one thing. I knew the
physical evidence wouldn't be sufficient to free me. It was a combination of everything. I'd
always known that one day I would win my freedom. It may be a naive belief, but I didn't think
the victory of the good guy was just something you saw on television -- I was convinced that
good eventually prevails in real life as well."
In point of fact, the new Supreme Court-ordered hearing would be repeatedly postponed. In order
to save face -- and protect itself from the possibility of a costly suit for wrongful imprisonment --
in August of 2011 the State of Arkansas agreed that the Memphis 3 would accept the highly
unusual Alford plea whereby the defendants could simultaneously assert their innocence while
pleading guilty in their own best interest. On August 19, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley
accepted the pleas proposed by Judge David Lazer and were released from prison.
The gross miscarriage of justice that put three teenagers behind bars for eighteen years has
brought no repercussions for the State of Arkansas and the killer of the three eight-year-old boys
remains at large.
Home | Theaters | Video | TV
Your Comments and Suggestions are Always Welcome.
© 2014 26®, All Rights Reserved.